After a life of hardship, Phoenix has a wife, a daughter and a career that involves helping those who once faced issues that, to Phoenix, are all too familiar.
Phoenix ran away from home in high school in an attempt to escape discrimination after coming out.
“I realized that I was gay in eighth grade and that’s like 1980, 1981,” Phoenix said.
“I sort of had this boyfriend and when I told him we were going to break up because I was gay, he told everyone in school.”
Phoenix left for good as a junior in high school.
“I ran away, and basically said I wasn’t going to go back. I wanted to go back and play ball and go back and run cross country, but I did not want to go back to my home.”
Phoenix spent the latter half of high school in the foster care system.
Had it not been for cross country, the Kentucky native and state champion might not have been able to become a first-generation college student.
At East Carolina University, Phoenix had scholarships for both cross country and softball.
“Athletics is what got me the opportunity to go to college,” Phoenix said.
The years at ECU were demanding — physically and emotionally, Phoenix said.
A typical day consisted of a 5 a.m. alarm followed by practice, class, another practice, weight lifting, dinner, work, homework and a 1 or 2 a.m. bedtime, Phoenix said.
Life became more difficult when Phoenix was asked to leave a church after members found out Phoenix was gay.
Phoenix soon discovered it was difficult to be both Christian and gay — but also too hard to live a life without spirituality.
“My spirituality is at the core at what’s important to me and keeps me going in the work that I do.”Happier days
After graduating from college in 1989, Phoenix came to Chapel Hill, fell in love with the area and found a wife, Kendra Smith.
Smith and Phoenix had a marriage ceremony in Durham three years ago on Oct. 25, 2008, and were legally married in Massachusetts three days later.
Smith and Phoenix went on to have a daughter, Duncan.
“She is the light of my life,” Phoenix said.
On campus, Phoenix advocates for UNC’s gay students. LGBTQ issues have loomed large on campus during the past few years, including a recent investigation into the dismissal of a gay member from a Christian a cappella group and a proposal for gender-neutral residence halls.
Mary Tongel, a work-study student in Phoenix’s office, said Phoenix is active on campus.
“If students come in who really need help and someone to talk to, (Phoenix) is always there,” Tongel said.
Phoenix said this is an ideal role.
“One person can make such a huge difference, and I wanted to be that one person,” Phoenix said.
“That’s kind of been the guiding force.”
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp said he appreciates Phoenix’s work.
“I think what I really appreciate about Terri is the level of rationality and thought that goes into Terri’s work,” he said.
“It is a position that is part advocacy, part mentoring, part research, part policy. But in all of that, Terri brings a great deal of wisdom, even-headedness and tremendous judgment to the work.”
Despite some reservations, Phoenix is optimistic for the future.
“I have a hopeful perspective and then I have a cynical perspective,” Phoenix said.
“My hopeful one is that the arc of time is bending towards justice for all people.”
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